On stage: modern Bharatanatyam

Indian Canadian dancer and choreographer Sujit Vaidya explores queerness, sensuality, and movement in his performance of Off Centre at Performance Works on July 12, as part of the Indian Summer Festival.

In Off Centre, dancers Sujit Vaidya and Arun Mathai work in perfect harmony | Photo by Paul Elliott, courtesy of Indian Summer Festival

The performer has challenged himself to express his queer identity within a very traditional dance form. Bharatanatyam is said to be the oldest classical dance form in India and the mother of many subsequent Indian dance forms. Originally performed only by women in Hindu temples, it is characterised by fixed upper torso, bent legs and flexed knees. These are combined with spectacular footwork, and sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes, and face muscles.

Vaidya’s performance looks to push beyond the traditions and expectations of Bharatanatyam to create an artistic expression that’s truer to himself and his identity.

“There is a place for all of those things, but I wanted to see what happens if we do away with these familiarities,” says Vaidya. “I feel like I’m sensing the possibilities that are all around the centre, and we are needing to go in those directions and explore them more.”

Making art of your own

Sujit Vaidya came into Bhara-tanatyam dance relatively late in life. Whereas many dancers in the style develop their abilities from childhood onwards, Vaidya only began his formal training in his thirties. He mentions that Bharatanatyam wasn’t even a very prevalent style of dance in the part of India where he grew up.

But amid making some significant career decisions later in life, Vaidya surprised himself with how inspired he was by the form and decided to take a chance on a whole new direction.

“To be able to… do any justice to the form and myself, I needed to release 200 per cent of my energies into the form, just to see where that went, without any expectations. I was fortunate to have had enough support for me to have taken that leap,” he says.

The practice of modern Bharatanatyam comes with some historical baggage for Vaidya. He notes that it used to be led by a hereditary community of dancers in a way that centred sensuality. But once it was appropriated by the nationalist movement in India around the 1940s, it became a higher caste tradition.

For Vaidya, devoting oneself to a traditional, but ultimately appropriated form, can be a challenging thing to navigate, especially for a relative newcomer.

“The way the form that came to many of us, came devoid of its history… but we also have a very deep connection to the kind of form we inherited,” says Vaidya.

While still interested in learning and understanding this form of Bharatanatyam, it is because of this complicated history that Vaidya also sees an opportunity to break away, giving himself a chance to explore and perform in a way that’s truer to himself.

“I would almost begin by challenging the word “tradition” itself. At this point, whose tradition is it that we’re practising?” says Vaidya. “The form that I’ve been given is already an appropriated form, so it gives me a sense of freedom to come to that space and have an expression of my existence.”

Up for interpretation

This curiosity has led Vaidya to reconnect with that older history of Bharatanatyam’s sensuality, and to do so in a way that reflects his own experiences as a gay man. In Off Centre, Vaidya performs with fellow dancer Arun Mathai, taking hold of narratives around queerness and sensuality.

“I wanted to delve into eroticism, sensuality, intimacy, and also claim the gaze on a body,” says Vaidya. “Because it’s always this taboo and shame that is attached with sexuality, sensuality and intimacy, especially in a homoerotic context.”

But Vaidya says that he is aiming to explore these themes and ideas in a way that’s open to interpretation, in part by forgoing the typical use of lyrics or words in Bharatanatyam’s performance to guide the narrative.

“I’ve made a narrative in the way that we embody the idea of intimacy, stillness, sensuality, whatever that may be. But we keep the space very open and quite abstract so that the viewer gets to come into this space and have their own experience with whatever it is that they’re viewing,” he says.

In this way, Vaidya’s hopes the audience’s interpretation of the piece might reflect his own approach to art: allowing yourself to embrace what resonates with you most.

“Sometimes as a dancer trained in Bharatanatyam, I don’t understand what is happening, but I definitely get an essence of what they’re trying to convey,” says Vaidya. “And that was what I was keeping in mind while making Off Centre.”

For more information visit: